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Wednesday, October 12, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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NLCS: Astros-Cards redux? More like reduction

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

ST. LOUIS — Once the 2005 National League Championship Series is decided, the Cardinals and Astros will have gone head-to-head no less than 45 times in two seasons.

Yet, as the series opens tonight at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals and Astros seemed more like perfect strangers than renewed rivals. Cardinals-Astros II is distinctive enough that it almost feels like a new flick rather than a sequel.

This is the first NLCS rematch since 1991-92, when the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves vied for World Series appearances.

When the Braves and Pirates squared off in back-to-back years, they did so with mostly the same protagonists. John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, David Justice and Ron Gant. Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, Jay Bell and Doug Drabek.

Among the former Astros and Cardinals missing from last year's NLCS: Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent, Edgar Renteria, Tony Womack, Mike Matheny and Woody Williams. Scott Rolen and Jeff Bagwell are still here but are injured.

"I thought the Cardinals were going to be hard-pressed to duplicate what they did last year, and they did duplicate it," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "We are a different club and we are probably not offensively as potent as we were last year. ...

"We are probably a little stronger in the pitching department and probably a little weaker in the offense department. I don't know how that's going to work out."

The Cardinals are the better offensive team, and they led the league in ERA (3.49), just ahead of the Astros (3.51).

Last season, pitchers Chris Carpenter and Andy Pettitte sat out with injuries. Now the Game 1 starters, Carpenter and Pettitte are healthy and look to be central figures this time.

In addition, the Astros eliminating the Braves in four division series games this year opposed to five in 2004 didn't force them into starting pitching mismatches. Last season, they couldn't use Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt until Games 3 and 4, after they were already down 2-0 in the series.

"When I signed with the Astros, this is what I hoped that I would be able to help the organization do is get past that first round of the playoffs," said Pettitte, an ex-Yankee with nine career LCS starts.

"Like I said a million times before, last year they did it without me, and hopefully this year I can help us get past this round."

Elbow trouble sidelined Pettitte in 2004. This season he was among baseball's best second-half pitchers, going 11-2 with a 1.69 ERA in 16 post-All-Star Game starts.

With the exception of a somewhat slow finish, Carpenter excelled all year. He came back from a nerve problem that benched him for the 2004 playoffs to having a Cy Young-caliber campaign. He beat the San Diego Padres in Game 1 of the division series.

"It's a different look than what they had the year without Andy there," Carpenter said. "All of a sudden they throw Andy out there in Game 1, with Roger and Oswalt behind him. That's what got them there is their pitching."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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